The Ardèche with its winding roads and inspiring views is a surprisingly quiet corner of southern France. It’s at the very south of the Rhône-Alpes region, flirting with both northern Provence and the Languedoc. There’s a hint of the Garrigue (aromatic undergrowth) in the rugged landscape. And, you’re just a hair’s breadth from the lavender fields and olive trees of the Drôme. At times you can almost feel the Alpes to the east but the Ardèche has its own unique personality. It shifts and changes with the landscape. At times Mediterranean, then Alpine, then almost Grecian.
There’s all sort of reasons to visit here, especially in early autumn when the tourists have all but left but the sun is still warm. And one of the best reasons to come has be the Ardèche Gorges Nature Reserve and the surrounding area.
From the small town of Vallon Pont d’Arc about an hour and a half south west of Valence, I headed for my accommodation, a yurt. Take the tourist route signed to the Pont d’Arc. Although the map might try and persuade you otherwise, it’s not the bendiest road in the Ardèche. That’s further north, but this one must come in a close second. Drive through the rock face of the great cliffs that surround the road and after a couple of miles, you’ll find a small sign announcing the Prehistoric Lodges on your right, snuggled down discretely between the road and the river.
A yurt to remember
The Lodges is one of those places that takes you slightly by surprise. There are five yurts tucked away in amongst the trees on slopes which lead down to one of the private beaches of the River Ardèche. They’re not any old yurts. Mine had a 4 poster bed (as well as a bunk bed). It was luxuriously dressed in leopard skin blankets and in the corner, a fabulously indulgent round bathtub. And because of the carefully secluded position, you can raise the external flaps of your yurt and enjoy the privacy of a bath while watching the sun slowly slip down the face of the gorge on the opposite side of the river. A stroll down to the beach to listen to the sounds of the river as dusk falls is very relaxing.
There’s a main cabin, with quiet views back over the gorge and a really good restaurant. You can connect to Wifi there if you need to. You could also stay in one of their rooms. But why would you want to? And as you slip down under your luxurious covers in the snug of your yurt, the sounds of nature at night gently soothe you to sleep.
The Pont d’Arc
The Pont d’Arc is a must-see in the Ardeche. The 54 m high and 60 m wide, natural bridge is carved out of the rock face of the gorge over the Ardèche River, and it happens to be just around the corner from the Loges. If you can, visit early in the morning, by which I mean about 8.30am to 9am to experience it’s mystical qualities.
A quick stop at Labeaume
Not far from Vallon Pont d’Arc (the starting point for the main tourist route along the gorges) is the town of Ruoms. Ruoms is pretty enough but from there, take a small, winding road signed to Labeaume. One of the Ardèche’s many ‘village de caractère’, it’s a small medieval village nestled against a limestone rock face. If you love mysterious and tiny cobbled streets, this is the place for you. It has a castle that watches carefully from above and the village opens out onto a large, pretty square surrounded by plane trees and perched on the banks of the Beaume River.
Cross the bridge to look back at the village huddled into the overhanging cliff face and dotted with quirky boutiques and quaint houses, many of which have façades decorated with pebbles. Or watch a game of Pétanque unfold in the square.
In July and August they have a musical festival here and it’s also not a bad place to use as a base if you want to explore the surrounding Beaume Gorge and discover some of the 140 dolmens (megalithic tombs). Or just sip coffee in the square and soak up the surrounding beauty before you head off to tackle the Ardèche gorges.
The long & winding road to St. Martin
There are many ways to explore the gorges, namely by foot, kayak or even by horse-back but it’s worth starting with a car. Drive the tourist route from Vallon Pont d’Arc to St. Martin d’Ardèche to get a lofty feel for what you’re about to discover. It’s 35 km of hair pin bends and steep inclines, and not necessarily for the faint-hearted driver. Throw in the odd brave cyclist who you have to overtake, ignore the locals who are nudging you on from behind, and don’t expect to spend a lot of time in 4th gear.
On the upside it is peppered with out-standing viewpoints along the way. And, although you tell yourself you’re not going to stop at each and every one, it’s very hard to resist mile after mile of breath-taking views over the limestone gorges (some of which are 300 metres high) with glimpses of the tiny river and kayakers, far, far below. Amazingly the road was only built in the 1960s and it’s not hard to imagine what an inhospitable and challenging terrain it must have been for anyone travelling before then.
With the famous Mistral wind pulling at your hair and a sense of the vastness of the region, when you finally drop down into St. Martin at the other end, you feel a bit like a conquering hero.
Explore the Gorges of Ardeche
St. Martin d’Ardèche or St Julien de Peyrolas on the opposite side of the river (and actually in the Languedoc) is a great place to stay for exploring the gorges. You’re right on the border of the Drôme, Vaucluse and Gard and you feel like you’re back in the Mediterranean. There are vineyards, plains, olive groves and figs and the village acts as a bit of a gateway from the gorges to Provence and the south.
For more information about the Ardèche: www.ardeche-guide.com; Details of The Lodges and their yurts: www.prehistoric-lodge.com